Despite only directing seven films in the genre, James Wan is undeniably a modern master of horror. His talent comes in taking simplistic stereotypes like brides and clapping games and making them the stuff of nightmares. His latest flick, scary sequel The Conjuring 2 (2016) continues the trend, making sure you’ll never think of nuns or British pensioners in quite the same way. Taut, tense and downright terrifying, The Conjuring 2 doesn’t quite scare up the same suspense as its predecessor, but damn it if it doesn’t come close.
Based on the true tale of the Enfield Poltergeist, the film follows the Hodgson family, made up of mum Peggy, daughters Margaret and Janet, and boys Johnny and Billy. Life is not easy for the British bunch, with no money for biscuits and young Billy picked on at school for his stutter. Things get a whole lot worse though when Janet finds herself teleporting around the house and hosting the deep voice of a 70 year old man named Bill Wilkins. Nearing the end of their tether, the family take their story public in the hope that someone will hear their plight and help. With their own personal problems, which become more evident as the film progresses, supernaturalists Ed and Lorraine Warren are reluctant to get involved when called in by the Catholic Church. However, reason gives way to heart, and they take up the cause to decipher whether it is one of the worst cases they’ve ever faced or one of the biggest wind-ups in paranormal history.
It’s a smartly scripted piece, bringing us full circle from the first film and again playing on the terrors that lurk out of sight rather than those we see. What’s even smarter this time round though is the strong focus on the children and in particular Janet, who are the only ones who witness the disturbances at the start before adults are gradually introduced to the terrors, thereby making us constantly question the validity of the ‘ghost’ story and the truth or trickery behind it. Sequels too often fall into the trap of trying to emulate their former films scene-by-scene that they forget to bring anything new to the plate. But what makes The Conjuring 2 succeed, is its inclusion of the opposing voice – the critics, non-believers and sceptics. Balanced films are so few and far between nowadays that it is a pure and simple joy when one finally surfaces. So much so that it is easy to forgive its weaker parts.
The film certainly has them though, notably in the rather long time it takes to really get rolling, with the Hodgson’s and the Warren’s not even meeting until after the first half of the film. When they do, it is still stand-offish, as any true bond between the families seems fractured until the inevitable denouement. What is also surprising is the fact Wan leaned on the same scare a number of times. Creepy turns around corners are indeed chilling for viewers to watch, but eventually what was once thrilling turns somewhat tedious. The other downside is the extreme variance in the ghosts and ghouls. Where the nun is perhaps one of the creepiest characters ever put to screen, the crooked man comes across as a laughable and cartoonic CGI caricature.
Wan proves his mettle though with some simply stunning shots, including a creative scene involving the unsettling nun, an establishing shot where we are guided around all the individual rooms of the Hodgson home to witness the inhabitants within, and another involving an eerie and evocative interview made with backs turned. He tests our sanity time and time again, building up anticipation, only to let it come crashing down around you. One of his best sequences has to be the moment Ed sings an impromptu Elvis concert, as you wait thoroughly prepared for the family night to turn south and instead are simply given the utter delight of Patrick Wilson’s voice. A good horror director knows when to scare you, a great one knows when not to, and the best understands the area in between. Horror aficionados and enthusiasts will certainly be pleased, with Wan creating a clear homage to the best of the best. Where Hitchcock mastered suspense at the turn of the 20th century and Craven turned schlock and slasher into something memorable in the seventies, Wan will be remembered for his stylish and sophisticated presence in the genre for many years to come.
Young actress Madison Wolfe proves her status as a rising star, with a controlled and compelling performance, donning an incredible British accent that will make you do a double take to believe she really is a bonafide American. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are also electric, cranking up the notch without succumbing to cliché, their chemistry eliciting genuine emotion from their audience by the film’s resolution. The only downside to this is the depth of their storyline sometimes stunts the films progression, as you become too rooted in their world and not in the connection they have with the family. They are, after all, at their best when they are answering their calling from God, and between the stories dual arc and the focus on questioning the validity of the girls account, we don’t see them unite enough.
One of the biggest problems fans might raise with the film though is its quick dismissal of iconic and well-documented Amityville case. The movie opens with the Warrens investigating the event, before strongly suggesting it was none other than a hoax. However, that is the beauty of The Conjuring 2, in taking something so cinematically infamous and turning it on its head, juxtaposing it with the film’s final climactic reveal and reminding audiences’ horror is so much more than blood, guts and gore. It is a sequel that does its predecessor proud, respecting the tone and style already established, yet remaining unique enough it to stand on its own feet. How lucky we are to have two such films now in this world…
Rating: 4 Crucifixes out of 5
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